AN: Er...hi? *sheepish wave*
Do I even need to say I'm sorry? I mean, really, aren't you lot tired of it by now? I am though. Really, truly, honestly sorry. So flippin' sorry, I swear.
So many have asked what exactly is going on to keep me from writing and, while I don't really like talking about personal issues on these things, I'll give you all a quick summary. The past year or two I've been dealing with two incarcerations (not my own), suddenly gaining custody of two toddler-sized nephews, three drug addictions being revealed in my family, leading to three rehab attempts (only one of which succeeded), the Boston bombing that injured a cousin and two friends, my mother being hospitalized twice from heart problems, my own as of yet unknown health issues, the deaths of two family friends, a car accident, the divorce of my parents, moving across the country, the death of my dog of eleven years, and a partridge in a friggin' pear tree.
I won't make any promises about when to expect the next update, because I really don't want to get your hopes up and then let you down. Just keep in mind what I said last chapter—I am not abandoning this. I swear it. I did warn you all that it was going to take me a while to update, though I suppose none of us expected it to take this long. Again, my apologies.
Happy New Year!
PS: The Gulping Plimpy Stew recipe is curtesy of my little ten year old cousin. In other completely unrelated news, I've decided to put off letting her help out in the kitchen for a few years.
PPS: There is some lovely fanart for the story (which I was supposed to tell you guys about like a year ago or something), by Noitavlas and another. Check out the links on my profile page.
Chapter 10: Where Walls Are Overrated And Stark Tries To Translate
"Then, you add about a dozen reeds picked on a Thursday to the cauldron of seawater. And do not wash the reeds before. The swamp muck and roots add flavor. After that's sat for thirteen days, you have your broth. Strain it, bring to a boil and add the parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, and pumpkin, in that order. Plimpies are very particular about things being alphabetized, you see?"
Stark stared at Harry with an expression of growing horror and fascination.
"Now, to prepare the gulping plimpy, you have to make sure you catch him on the new moon. And there have to be absolutely no gurdyroots in the area or it'll ruin everything. You'll have to keep him in a tank until the moon is about five eighths of the way full, though. He'll eat your finger nails, so trim them often and try to make sure they're clean. Tickling his left foot for about seven minutes will give him a painless death and help ready the meat for the stew. Scale the plimpy and add him to the pot, and cook until the bones float to the top. Then, take the cauldron off the fire and let cool for about three days, until the stew has thickened to a gel." Harry finished his explanation, donning Bruce's stolen glasses with a flourish and nodding his head decisively, as if he had just imparted all the knowledge and wisdom the universe had to offer.
"...All I asked was if you wanted a cranberry," Stark muttered, glancing down at the bag of dried fruit, looking ill. "I've lost my appetite."
Bruce tried to contain himself, he really did, but the insulted glare Harry threw at the billionaire had Bruce quickly trying to muffle the laughter that wanted to escape. He wasn't quite quick enough, however, and when Stark turned to glare at him, Bruce casually covered it up with a loud cough. The billionaire didn't seem to buy it.
"Yeah, laugh it up, chuckles," Stark glowered. "You're the one who eats this kid's food." He put the cranberries on the table and pushed them away, where Harry promptly snatched them up.
Bruce couldn't help but wonder if that hadn't been Harry's plan the whole time. Normally, he would have scolded Harry, but he was mostly just relieved that his friend was finally going to eat something. The MRE fiasco had made Harry more than a bit suspicious of anything that Bruce had put in front of him and claimed was edible.
"Thankfully, he's never found a plimpy to try that recipe with. The rest of his food's pretty good, though. You should try it some time," Bruce smirked.
Stark pointed at him accusingly. "You're a little bit of a sadist, aren't you?"
Bruce shrugged, unrepentant. He'll admit, he's had to develop a unique sense of humor over the years.
"Either that, or the kid's crazy is catching," Stark continued.
He was only just able to restrain the sigh that wanted to escape him. "He's not crazy," Bruce said for the umpteenth time, feeling not unlike a broken record.
Stark stared at him for a moment, then flicked his eyes over to Harry, who was carefully and diligently portioning out the dried fruit on the lab table, dividing them by parameters known only to him, before unceremoniously shoving them all in his mouth. "Doc, seriously. He seems like a good guy and I know he's your friend, but this one is definitely a few bricks short of a wall."
"No walls," Harry agreed through a mouth full of cranberries. "No structure. Everything's fluid."
"You're not crazy," Bruce assured his friend, then turned back to Stark. "He's not, all right? He may not be exactly normal, but he's not insane. I've seen crazy plenty of times before and he doesn't fit the bill." General Ross and that abomination that he created, those guys were crazy. Loki and his bid for world domination, that was crazy. Harry wasn't crazy—he was something else entirely.
Stark held up his hands in a placating manner. "Hey, I never said crazy was a bad thing. Hell, I don't think anyone on this ship is sane."
Bruce raised a brow at him, rolling his eyes slightly. "Well, my confidence just sky-rocketed. So glad to know the world's in good hands, then," he muttered.
"Come on, Doc," Stark smirked. "You should know, the best minds are never normal."
For a moment, Bruce was tempted to retort—to tell him that, oh yes, it was great to have essentially been branded a mad scientist by his peers, a monster who had no control over himself, driven insane from rage. He narrowed his eyes at the man and opened his mouth, angry, bitter words at the ready. Until the wide, berry stained smile Harry was aiming at Stark caught his eye and cut his resentment short. He felt the corners of his mouth give an involuntary twitch upwards, practically an instinctual response to his friend.
"Walls make cells. They hide you away from the world. Make it so you can't see, covered in the dark," Harry said casually, finishing off the last of the fruit.
The meaningful look he gave Bruce belied his tone, however.
Personally, Bruce didn't think cells were a bad option. If he could, he'd build an entire prison system and re-enforce it with titanium, just to keep the beast in his mind from escaping.
Bruce and Harry had different opinions on how best to deal with the other guy, though. Despite turning green and gaining five feet and two thousand pounds, in Harry's mind, Bruce was still just Bruce. He may as well have just changed his pants, for all the difference it made to Harry. Bruce could never quite decide if that terrified or comforted him.
So, instead of replying to the jab, Bruce reached over and plucked his stolen glasses off his friend's face, placed them on his own and turned back to his computer. Recognizing the win for what it was, Harry barked out a triumphant laugh and grinned at him.
Stark glanced between the pair of them, looking distinctly put out. "I just missed something here, didn't I?"
It took all of Bruce's coaxing skills, and another bag of fruit from Stark, to keep Harry from escaping the lab when they brought in the scepter.
The thing had to be run through every security scan known to man, and probably a few that their friendly Asgardian had shared, before Fury allowed it to be delivered to the lab. The two scientists were given a full work-up of the results, of course, but neither were very trusting of the SHIELD employees and quickly set about doing their own tests.
Bruce slowly ran the Geiger counter over the staff, keeping one eye on the readings and the other on Harry. The moment that the scepter had been delivered, Harry was on edge. Well, before that, actually. He had been about three minutes into a rant warning against the infectious qualities of maggots, that seemed to have Stark morbidly fascinated, before he stopped mid-sentence, eyes glazing over and staring at the wall with that familiar far off look. A moment later he had blinked once, turned and attempted to set the door on fire through the force of his glare, then promptly hid himself in the corner under a bench.
A few seconds later, the scepter was brought to them.
Stark, Bruce knew, hadn't missed the sequence of these events or the significance of their timing. The other scientist hadn't said anything about it, though. Just kept sending suspicious looks in Harry's direction, as if waiting for him to perform his next trick.
Bruce forced himself to stop grinding his teeth.
"The gamma readings are definitely consistent with Selvig's reports on the Tesseract," Bruce told Stark, watching as the graphs spiked when he waved the reader over the gem-like object at the top of the staff. "But it's gonna take weeks to process."
"If we bypass their mainframe and direct route to the Homer cluster, we can clock this at around six hundred teraflops," Stark said casually, fingers gliding across the screen of his briefcase turned super-computer.
Bruce stared for a moment, before shaking his head. "All I packed were our toothbrushes."
"Well, you brought the kid, too, so I figure you're still in the lead for cool toys," Stark said with a smirk.
Genial man though he considered himself to be, Bruce couldn't keep the glare off his face as he positioned himself in front of Harry's hiding spot. "He's not a damn toy."
"He's also not hiding in the corner anymore."
Bruce started and quickly leaned down to check under the bench, and sure enough, found it unoccupied. He let loose a string of the more creative curses in his vocabulary, courtesy of a number of mill workers, shipmen, and dockhands, that had Stark's brows meeting his hairline in surprise and a bit of awe.
"Relax, Doc." Stark swiped his fingers across the touch screen and turned it to face Bruce. "He escaped us, but I guess it's harder to sneak past a super soldier, even if they're old enough for their hearing to start going."
The screen had on it a video feed that was obviously from one of SHIELD's security cameras, showing Harry in an animated conversation with a very confused looking Captain America. It looked as if they were just down the hall, so thankfully Harry hadn't gone far before being caught by Rogers. Harry's hands seemed to have developed a mind of their own, gesturing wildly as he spoke with the captain, who only seemed to be growing more confused by the moment, judging by his expression.
"I kinda feel like it might be unconstitutional, letting this conversation continue," Stark said in a conspiratorial whisper, squinting at the screen. Then he gave a shrug and tapped another button. "But it's just too damn funny."
The volume rose and Harry's excited chatter carried through the speaker.
"...and now, now it's just an invasion. They're everywhere! I mean, sure, they hardly ever move, but some of them are huge. Just imagine when they do start hopping."
Rogers blinked. "You mean...the rocks?"
"The frogs," Harry pointed his finger at him meaningfully. "They just look like rocks, all right? Just you wait until the blue moon, then you'll see. What do you think's happened to all the bees?"
"The bees?" Rogers questioned.
"The bees!" Harry exclaimed
"Um... Well, okay, I know that we have been to the moon, but..." Rogers looked around uncertainly, and likely hoping for an intervention of some kind. "But, no one ever said anything about bringing back moon frogs..."
Stark lost it at that point, waving at the screen and disappearing the video feed, as he leaned against the desk for support and gasped for breath through the laughter. Bruce hid his smile under his hand and made a mental note to have a talk with the captain and explain to him Harry's active imagination.
"Oh," Stark wheezed. "So much blackmail material. The possibilities here are endless, I swear."
Bruce gave him a disapproving look. "Possibilities that shouldn't be taken advantage of, considering how confused the poor guy probably already is."
"Bah," Stark batted away those petty concerns with a wave of his hand. Once he had calmed down some, he continued in an only slightly more serious tone, "You know, you two should come by Stark Tower sometime. Top ten floors, all R and D. You'd love it, it's candy land. And we've got plenty of small spaces for the kid to squeeze himself into."
Bruce gave an amused huff and shook his head. "Thanks, but the last time I was in New York, I kind of broke...Harlem."
"Well, I promise a stress-free environment," Stark assured him, while casually circling around the desk to come to Bruce's side, twirling an electric solder in his hand. "No tension, no surprises."
Whatever Bruce had been expecting after Stark's generous offer, it wasn't to suddenly receive an electric shock to his side. "Ow!" Bruce cringed away from the other scientist, grabbing his tingling ribs protectively.
Stark leaned in close, staring at Bruce expectantly. "Nothing?" He asked, looking more than a little disappointed.
Quite literally stunned silent, Bruce couldn't do more than stare back at the mad man in disbelief.
"Hey!" The captain shouted from the doorway, hand still on Harry's shoulder from leading him back into the lab, eyes narrowed in obvious displeasure. "Are you nuts?!"
"Jury's out," Stark shrugged before turning back to Bruce. "You really have got a lid on it, haven't you? What's your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed?"
Rogers gave him a disappointed look. "Is everything a joke to you?"
"Funny things are."
"Threatening the safety of everyone on this ship isn't funny." Rogers paused, sparing Bruce an apologetic glance. "No offense Doc—Ow!"
The captain quickly snatched his hand back off Harry's shoulder, rubbing away the sting from the pinch he'd just received, while Harry glared back at him.
"Bruce doesn't hurt people," he said firmly, the look in his eyes daring the captain to offer a different opinion.
"What? No, I didn't mean he—" Rogers sputtered a bit, face falling guiltily, before turning to Bruce, looking contrite. "Dr. Banner, I didn't mean that you would..."
Bruce waved off his would-be apology. "I'm more than aware of the damage I've done. It's better to err on the side of cau—"
"Bruce doesn't hurt people," Harry interrupted, stressing his point. "People, no. Heliopaths, yes. Nargles, maybe, but only if they hurt first and sometimes not even then. He's much better with his reds now, not really a proper purple, more of a maroon. But still much better than he was, so unless the nargles start poking and prodding like they do..." he paused, eyes narrowing as he stared out the window into the hallway, where a small group of agents were not quite subtly watching them, out of either curiosity or caution. Harry huffed out an annoyed breath. "Never mind. Bruce, eat some broccoli."
Bruce barely restrained the urge to roll his eyes.
There was a beat of silence as the others stared at Harry, visibly trying to puzzle out his little rant, before Stark turned to his monitor. "Jarvis, did you get all that?"
"Recorded and cataloged, sir," the computer replied.
All eyes turned to Stark, who merely shrugged. "I told you I wanted a translator," he said to Bruce. "You weren't filling the position, so I'm making my own. Besides, Jarvis needed something to do while our decryption programs finished breaking into SHIELD's secured files."
For a moment, Rogers seemed only able to stare in shock at Stark's gall, before his disappointed expression was back at full force. "I'm sorry, did you just say—?"
Stark casually turned his back on Rogers, rifling through his bag. "Jarvis has been running it since I hit the bridge. In a few hours, we'll know every dirty secret SHIELD has ever tried to hide." He held up a bag of dried fruit triumphantly, and turned back to the captain. "Blueberry?"
Moving on with another shrug, Stark motioned the bag towards Bruce, who waved him away, and then towards Harry. Harry, of course, held out his hands eagerly. Stark gave a small smirk, before simply tossing the whole bag at him and grabbing another for himself.
"Mr. Stark," Rogers said forcefully. "Breaking into the confidential files of a government agency is not only illegal, but immoral. They're sealed for a reason."
"Yes they are," Stark agreed. "A very good reason, I'm sure, and one that I would like to know. There are lots of things I would like to know, actually. Why did Fury call on us? Why now? What isn't he telling us? I can't do the equation unless I have all the variables."
Rogers' eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You think Fury's hiding something?"
"He's a spy. Captain, he's the spy. His secrets have secrets. There's something else going on here. It's been bugging them too," Stark motioned towards Bruce and Harry.
"Maggots do squirm into any available brain," Harry agreed.
"I swear, everything you say should be put on a t-shirt," Stark muttered.
The captain, however, had his gaze focused on Bruce. He couldn't help balking a bit at the attention. "Uh, no, I just want to finish my work here and..."
Bruce sighed. Captain America was using a tone. "'A warm light for all mankind to share.' Loki's jab at Fury about the cube..."
Rogers nodded. "I heard it."
Bruce looked over at Stark. "Well, I think that was meant for you. Even if Barton didn't tell Loki about the Tower, it was still all over the news."
"The Stark Tower? That big ugly—" Stark sent him a look, "...building in New York?"
"It's powered by the arc reactor, a self-sustaining energy source. That building will run itself for, what, a year?"
"It's just a prototype," Stark said modestly, before turning to the captain. "I'm kinda the only name in clean energy right now, is what he's getting at."
"So, why didn't SHIELD bring him in on the Tesseract project?" Bruce asked pointedly. "I mean, what are they even doing in the energy business in the first place?"
"Something I'll have to look into once I'm finished cracking open all of Fury's nuts," Stark smirked, moving to pop a blueberry in his mouth, before freezing mid-motion. He blinked, then gave small shiver. "I'm going to think of a way to rephrase that and then get back to you."
Rogers scowled, unmoved. "Some secrets have their place."
Stark raised an eyebrow in his direction. "Yeah? Well, SHIELD picked the wrong place to put them, because their secrets are getting in my way."
Rogers' scowl deepened, nostrils flaring as he took a deep breath, clearly restraining himself from reacting and considering whether or not this was a battle worth fighting. The captain glanced over in Bruce's direction.
"Steve," Bruce gave him a meaningful look. "Tell me this doesn't smell a little funky to you?"
The muscle in his jaw twitched. "Focus on finding the cube," Captain Rogers ordered, before squaring his shoulders and walking out of the lab with a purposeful stride.
The other three watched as he hesitated for a split second at the hallway, then, obviously coming to some decision, marching down the corridor and disappearing around the corner.
The billionaire fiddled a bit more with the tablet computer, before turning to aim its camera at Harry. "Okay, now say something cryptic and possibly insane."
Harry continued to ignore him in favor of pressing his face against the glass wall that looked out over the main control room. Bruce could see a couple of agents staring back up at him, looking more than a bit confused.
"Seriously?" Stark lowered the tablet and glared at the back of Harry's head. "An hour ago I couldn't get you to shut up. Now, suddenly you've gone mute?"
Harry spared a quick second to turn and show Stark his blueberry stained tongue, before quickly returning his face to the glass.
At first it had been amusing, really, being an outsider looking in as someone else tried to make sense of Harry. But honestly, now it was starting to grate Bruce. Not that Stark was doing anything wrong, of course. It wasn't as if he was harassing Harry or mocking him. But still...
As interested as Bruce could admit to being about Harry's eccentricities, he had always restrained that part of his nature, always kept a lid on his inner mad scientist when it concerned his friend. He was a curiosity, yes, but more than that, he was Bruce's companion, his partner. The only one who had never showed an ounce of fear towards Bruce or the other guy. The only one to stay beside him through these past few hellish years. They took care of each other.
And another scientist probing Harry's mind...it irked Bruce.
"Mr. Stark," the warning in Bruce's voice was difficult to miss, "he's not something for you to experiment with."
Stark side-eyed Bruce. "Well, I hope not. The things I experiment on have a bad habit of exploding."
Harry whirled around, eyes wide and alarmed.
"You're not going to explode," Bruce quickly assured him.
Not entirely convinced, Harry cast a mistrustful glare at Stark, before looking down at himself, ensuring there haven't been any explosive additions to his person.
Stark waved a hand towards the scene. "You see why this translator needs to happen? It's not just for my benefit," he defended.
"Pale petal pinks," Harry murmured while giving his satchel a thorough search.
Sweet scented lies, Bruce thought. Innocent, but still false. "He's not here for you to study," he told Stark through gritted teeth. "We have real work to be doing."
Stark raised a brow at them, laying the tablet down on the desk and giving his full attention. "All right, so we've established that he's not an experiment and he's not a toy. He's not a kid and he's not crazy. So, you want to tell me exactly what he is, then?"
Bruce pursed his lips and rubbed the bridge of his nose, letting out a soft growl of frustration. Before he could snap at the other man, however, Harry spoke up.
"He doesn't know." His face was blank, looking perfectly unbothered by the topic, except Bruce could see him anxiously curling his toes against the floor. "We don't know."
Looking more than a bit surprised at receiving something like an answer, Stark could only stare for a moment. "How— What do you mean, you don't know?"
Bruce sighed and looked over at Harry, who was staring down at the floor and his curling toes. "Harry has...something like retrograde amnesia. Not quite that, I don't think, but symptoms resembling it...and some other things."
"Dark spots in my head space," Harry confirmed quietly. "Used to be covered in it, but bits and pieces light up now. Things trickle out, but they're not right. It muddles me."
Stark is quiet for a period, as serious as Bruce has seen him yet, as he observes the pair of them. "What have you tried? I mean, I know you haven't exactly had much access to modern medicine the past few years, but..."
Bruce nodded in assent. "Whatever meditative and therapeutic techniques, we could try, we did. They've done about as much good as possible, I suppose, in helping him focus and make sense of things." Secretly, Bruce thinks that if he could get Harry in an imaging machine, he'd be able to do more, that maybe Harry's difficulties stem from something that's as physical as it is mental.
Stark gives a contemplative hum. "You know, I've been thinking of adding a medical floor to the tower. I mean, considering how often I seem to be blowing myself up or flying into the occasional wall, only makes sense. And while I'm at it, might as well as deck it out with the works, you know? Full research labs and everything."
He left the sentence hanging in the air, as if it were a question waiting for an answer, and turned his attention back to the tablet, while Harry and Bruce stared.